Though I’d be hard pressed to pick just one of the fifty concert staged readings reviewed here as the Absolute Best Concert Staged Reading Ever, I can’t recall a more spectacularly staged “reading” of a Broadway musical than last night’s Reiner Reading Series staging of Kander & Ebb’s Steel Pier.
Superbly directed and choreographed by Daniel A. Smith in what may well be a career high for the L.A. musical theater quadruple-threat, Steel Pier The Reading not only brought out the best in what many consider John Kander and Fred Ebb’s most gorgeous score, it featured more dancing—and more sensationally performed dancing—than any reading I’ve seen (with the possible exception of the Reiner Series’ Legs Diamond a few years back).
Anchored by the star performance extraordinare of leading lady Leslie Stevens, and buoyed by a) one memorable featured turn after another, b) eight of the finest (and fastest-studying) dancers any theater town can offer, and c) a twenty-(count’em)-piece orchestra under musical director Bill Brown’s expert baton, Smith’s vision came to dazzling life for one night only on the stage of Cal State Long Beach’s University Theatre.
Anyone who has listened to the musical’s 1997 Original Cast Recording might easily wonder how Steel Pier could have failed to follow in the box-office footsteps of Kander & Ebb’s previous smashes Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss Of The Spider woman. Songs like “Everybody Dance,” “Second Chance,’ “Wet,” “Running In Place,” and the oh-so catchy title tune show off the legendary song-writing duo at their smartest and most tuneful best, and never did K&E write more drop-dead gorgeously than in “First You Dream” or “Somebody Older.” Add to that the raunchy treat that is “Everybody’s Girl” and the Busby Berkeley-ready dream sequence “Leave The World Behind” and many an OCR buff has surely wondered how Steel Pier could have closed only two months and four days after its very first preview.
The answer is a simple one. The book.
Folks may complain that truly original musicals are far too few and far between, but there’s something to be said for a book based on a proven source, whether it be novel, play, or movie. Simply put, had David Thompson’s fatally flawed book not been blessed by its Kander & Ebb score, it might never even have made it past its writer’s typewriter to the legitimate (or illegitimate) stage.
With subject matter as potentially meaty as the Dance Marathons that were all the rage in the 1920s and ‘30s (and never more so than at the height of The Great Depression when prize money offered a way out of the poorhouse), a great musical could have been written, and not necessarily one as dark as the Horace McCoy novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? or the Sydney Pollack movie it inspired.
Indeed, Thompson’s book does feature some highly promising characters among its cast of marathon dancers.
There’s been-there-done-him onetime lumber camp cook Shelby (Tracy Lore) and her latest love Luke (Peter Becket Kuhl), Jeanette MacDonald wannabe Precious (Madison Claire Parks) and her hick hubby Happy (Jeffrey Christopher Todd), snappy-talking brother-and-sister act Buddy and Bette (Marc Montaminy and Jennifer Strattan), and burly Olympic Gold Medalist Johnny (Jordan Lamoureux) and his partner Dora (Allison Sheppard), though even these could stand further fleshing out to make Steel Pier the ensemble piece it cries out to be.
Focus instead is on aging ex-celeb Rita Racine (Stevens) and her Svengali-like secret husband Mick (Gabriel Kalomas), a hypnotic rascal who keeps promising Rita that their current marathon will be their last … and promising … and promising …
No wonder then that the arrival in Rita’s life of stunt pilot Bill Kelly (Jeff Edgerton), fresh from what ought to have been a fatal crash, offers hope to our damsel in distress that there might just be a future minus Mick.
Unfortunately for Rita and Bill (and audiences for that matter), Thompson’s book takes a preposterous turn in the musical’s final minutes that must have left Broadway audiences scratching their heads in disbelief and dismay … and turned what ought to have been wows into ows.
Fortunately for 2014 audiences, Kander & Ebb’s songs are as glorious as ever and dance numbers like “Everybody Dance,” “The Shag,” “Two Step,” and “The Sprints” still provide one show-stopping showcase after another for a choreographer as gifted as Smith and dancers as Broadway-caliber as Richard Bulda, Zack Crocker, Rachel Davis, Marisa Field, Bren Thor Johnson, Hannah Simmons, Michael Starr, and Katy Tabb, all of whom score bonus points for having mastered Smith’s intricate choreography in a matter of four days or so.
Other than Edgerton’s tentative performance as Bill, the Reiner Reading Series cast could simply not have been better, from Jeffrey Landman’s delicious cameo as the weaselly Mr. Walker to the angelic songbird trio of Caitlyn Calfas, Sarah Meals, and Kirklyn Robinson to zingy, zippy dance pairs Montminy & Strattan and Lamoureux & Sheppard, tiptop Lore partner Kuhl, and most especially to the gloriously high note-hitting Parks and Todd’s handsome, sexy bumpkin of a beau.
As for the manipulative Mick and the man-crazy Shelby, the musical’s most colorful roles could not have been in more expert hands than those of two of SoCal’s most versatile stars, the gorgeous-voiced Kalomas simply mesmerizing as Mick and the velvet-piped Lore a bold and brassy hoot as Shelby.
Most spectacular of all was the richly-layered, beautifully sung, exquisitely danced star turn of Broadway vet Stevens at the peak of her talents.
Musical director Burns and his bigger-than-Broadway orchestra (provided by Los Angeles Musicians Collective) were everything a Kander & Ebb lover could wish for.
Additional kudos are shared by assistant choreographer Emily Dauwalder, stage manager Heidi Westrom, and sound engineer Andrew Nagy.
Reiner Reading Series Michael Betts and David Lamoureux would surely want to add their own thanks to series underwriters Ken & Dottie Reiner, with additional funding provided by Ackerman Family/Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation, Kathy Baker Campbell, and Laura Killingsworth, and orchestra enhancement and additional theater rehearsal time made possible by Pat and Janice Derouen.
Barring a brand new book, it’s unlikely that Musical Theatre West (or any other major regional theater) will ever attempt a full production of Steel Pier, though Kander & Ebb’s songs cry out for a rewrite to do them justice.
In the meantime, those attending yesterday’s Concert (Almost Fully) Staged Reading can rejoice in having been there for Steel Pier’s comeback … if only for one glorious night.
University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach
November 23, 2014